For these shorebirds, it’s a situation gone from bad to worse: already the victim of plummeting populations, new research reveals that, despite efforts to save them, red knot numbers have continued to drop dramatically.
Roughly the size of a robin, red knots have one of the longest migrations on the planet, from the tip of South America to its Arctic breeding grounds. Partway through this 10,000-mile flight, the shorebirds make a stop to refuel at the east coast’s Delaware Bay. In an effort to gain weight quickly and reach their Arctic breeding grounds before early snows, the birds feast on horseshoe crab eggs recently laid in the sand.
At one time, more than 100,000 red knots came to the Delaware Bay stopover. But overharvest of the crabs – used for bait – have caused red knot numbers to plummet. In 2006, the bird was designated a candidate species for the federal endangered species list. This meant that although the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that the bird warranted protection, there wasn’t funding to do so. In the years that have since passed, the situation of the bird has decreased rapidly.
“A loss of 6,000 birds is bad for a wintering population of 56,000, but for a population of 16,000 it is catastrophic. Have red knots reached the tipping point?”
Numbers in the red:
Larry Niles, a biologist who has spent the past decade working to protect shorebirds in trouble, travels to Chile to survey populations of wintering red knots. What he found this year was staggering.
“Where in previous years we counted 12,000 knots, this year we counted 6,000,” he blogged after his trip. “A loss of 6,000 birds is bad for a wintering population of 56,000, but for a population of 16,000 it is catastrophic. Have red knots reached the tipping point?”
Taking a stand
The state of New Jersey doesn’t want to wait to find out. It proposed changing the status of the bird from threatened to endangered. The uplisting does not do much in terms of action, but the state hopes the move will raise awareness of the bird’s plight and may move the feds to act.
This isn’t the first step the state has taken to protect the bird. For a few years, New Jersey has had a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing, with the hope of increasing the food supply for red knots and bringing the bird’s population numbers up.
Unfortunately, the state’s actions alone will not be enough. Will the government take notice of this crisis and act, or will it be too late for red knots?
Watch a video detailing the plight of the red knot and its diminishing food source, horseshoe crabs. The video incorporates footage from the PBS Nature program, Crash: A Tale of Two Species, courtesy of Thirteen/WNET New York.